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Papyrocentric Performativity is a sub-site of Overlord of the Über-Feral, where further book-reviews are sometimes posted.


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Nothin’ But a Good Time: The Spectacular Rise and Fall of Glam Metal, Justin Quirk (Unbound 2020)

I like glam metal, hair metal, spandex metal, call it what you will. It’s raucous, it’s ridiculous, and it’s fun, even when the music is bad. And it isn’t always bad. There were sometimes talented musicians and skilful song-writers beneath the billowing barnets and caked-on cosmetics.

But who was ever going to take glam metal seriously enough to write a book about the whole phenomenon? No-one, I would have said if the question had ever occurred to me. That’s why I was pleased to come across this book. At last, I thought, I can learn more about Cinderella, Poison, Faster Pussycat and other ridiculous-looking musos who pouted, postured and partied so hard in the 1980s – and wrote some catchy tunes in-between.

But my anticipation of what this book was going to be like was way better than the reality. You’re right if you don’t judge this book by its cover, because although it claims to be about glam metal, Justin Quirk devotes most of his time to Def Leppard, who aren’t glam metal; Bon Jovi, who aren’t glam metal; Guns’n’Roses, who aren’t glam metal; and Skid Row, who aren’t glam metal. In fact, I don’t think GNR and Bon Jovi are metal at all. Unless it’s dreck metal. But the Bon Jovi section does contain these memorable words from Sebastian Bach, lead singer of Skid Row, as he describes his feud with Jon “Bon Blow Me”:

Look, I’m a twenty-two-year-old fucking Metallica freak on speed. I’m psychotic. I can drink four bottles of whiskey before I go on stage. Jon is a thirty-one-year-old Bruce Springsteen fan with a fax machine. He gets pissed on one drink. Who do you think is gonna win a fight? – ch. 7, pp. 215-6

That’s an entertaining quote, but it shouldn’t have been in this book. I think Skid Row wrote some good songs, but they aren’t glam metal. Okay, Quirk writes a fair bit about Mötley Crüe, who are archetypal glam metal, and about W.A.S.P., who are in the related genre of schlock metal. But who needs to read more about Mötley Crüe? Not me, even though I like them. They’re crude, they’re cartoonish and they’re fun. But they’ve received plenty of exposure both in print and on the net.

Cinderella haven’t. Nor have Faster Pussycoat. And those two bands wrote some good music and pouted, postured and partied with the best of them. To judge by his present raddled condition, Taime Downe, the lead singer of Faster Pussycat, must have good stories to tell. You can already tell from his name and from album titles like Front Row for the Donkey Show that he has a sense of humor. But he and his band are mentioned only in passing here. As for obscurer glam-metal bands – forget it. Quirk is too busy writing about bloody Guns’n’Roses, quite possibly the most over-hyped, over-exposed and over-rated band of all time. And not glam metal!

So I’ll come off the fence: I was disappointed by Nothin’ But a Good Time. It promised much on the cover and delivered little inside. And it didn’t even offer the consolation of a photo section with lots of ridiculous costumes, poses, hair-dos and make-up. There are no photos and no index. If you want a good history, analysis and appreciation of glam metal, this isn’t it.

Humour, Terry Eagleton (Yale University Press 2019)

Is it possible to base a long, successful career on talking out of one’s arse? The short answer is: Yes. The long answer is: Terry Eagleton. But there are countless long answers: Sigmund Freud; Slavoj Žižek; Susan Sontag; and other major and minor figures in such fields as EngLit, sociology, psychology and film studies. All the same, Eagleton is undoubtedly one of the world’s leading proctoglossists. I’ve never been able to decide which is worse: his prose or his thinking. I would never, under any circumstances, actively seek out one of his books (Eagleton would of course say “proactively”), but when one comes my way I like to have another look and another sneer at the pathologies infesting the modern humanities.

What I don’t like to do is actually read one of Eagleton’s books. Like Will Self and Stewart Home, he writes far too badly for that. So I dip. And I didn’t have to dip in Humour for long to find an excellent example of his bad thinking:

Knowing how a joke works does not necessarily sabotage it, any more than knowing how a poem works ruins it. … An anatomical acquaintance with the large intestine is no obstacle to enjoying a meal. – Introduction, p. x

You don’t enjoy a meal with your large intestine. You digest a meal with your large intestine and enjoy a meal with your senses. But you do enjoy or analyse a joke with the same thing: your mind. And analysis can certainly get in the way of mental pleasures. Particularly when the analysis is as polysyllabic and constipated as it is here. Like the echt Guardianista he is, Eagleton is too busy posturing and admiring his own cleverness to worry about the meaning of his words.

That’s why he’s a master of mixed metaphors and of metaphors that simply don’t work. On page 90 he says: “One representation spawns another and that another until the narrative logjams and starts to come apart at the seams.” On page 110 he talks about the middle class and the aristocracy “confront[ing each other] eyeball to eyeball over the barricades.” (p. 110) How do they do that when there are barricades in the way? Do their eyeballs extend on stalks, perhaps?

Eagleton doesn’t care. Why should he? Since when has anyone in the despicable, deplorable and downright disgusting field of EngLit had to worry about writing good prose? Since, like, never. But you do have to worry in EngLit about having the right politics and dropping the right names. Eagleton has those and drops them. And he read a lot of English Literature as he climbed to the top of the EngLit tree. And yes, he’s definitely at the top. This book was published by Yale University Press, after all. And it will have been respectfully reviewed in august publications like The New York Review of Books and The Times Literary Supplement. But no-one will have pointed out what an egregiously bad writer and thinker Eagleton is. That’s the funniest thing about Humour. The emperor has no clothes.

As for me, I’m not going to comment on what the emperor says as he pilots his flip-flopping scalpel through a stagnant minefield of mixed metaphors. I don’t find the analysis of humour very interesting. Eagleton makes it even duller than usual. But I did come across a good joke as I dipped. Please note that Eagleton is not quoting it with approval, but that makes it even funnier:

There’s this West Indian tries to get a labouring job on a building site. Foreman says, No chance, I know you lot. I give one of you a job, the next day you turn up with a gang of your friends. He begs and pleads and finally he gets the job. Next day he turns up with a pigmy. (Indicating) Pigmy. Down there. The foreman said, What did I tell you, no friends! He says, That’s not my friend, that’s my lunch. – p. 145, ch. 5, “The Politics of Humour”

Now that’s a good joke. If you can cope with Eagleton’s execrable prose, you might be able to find even better jokes nestled amid his boring and banal analysis. But if you can cope with Eagleton’s execrable prose, I doubt that you’ll dare to find jokes like that funny. I also doubt that you’ll find Eagleton’s prose execrable.

Afterword: Apparently Terry Eagleton was one of Miriam Stimbers’ teachers at Oxford. If Miriam happens to read this review, I’d like to assure her that it is not aimed at her in any way. I knew and disliked Eagleton long before I knew of her connection to him and indeed wrote my first hostile review of his work before I knew of that connection. And perhaps Miriam herself doesn’t like Eagleton or his work.

One good route to lasting popular success is to say profound things in a simple way. That is what the Bible has always done: even today the Latin Bible is not difficult to read and nor is the Greek New Testament. Until you get to St Paul, that is. He may or may not be saying profound things, but he’s certainly not saying them in a simple way.

That doubt doesn’t apply to the French writer Guy de Maupassant (1850-93): he combined great simplicity with great profundity in a way that’s reminiscent of Mozart. But music doesn’t convey meaning so clearly, and Mozart doesn’t generally have Mauppassant’s melancholy. Both seemed to have a kind of mystic’s acceptance of the world, however: it is what it is, in all its beauty and horror. People do some very unpleasant things in Maupassant’s stories, but he has compassion and understanding for both victims and perpetrators.

The victims don’t have to be human, either: he can write with equal power and compassion about the suffering of horses, dogs and birds. He understands that people do what they do because they are what they are: imperfect beings in particular situations with particular histories and natures. He doesn’t have the shallow and evasive message that society is the real sinner, but sin does take place within a society and is shaped and sometimes caused by that fact. The plump, good-natured prostitute of “Boule de Suif” (“The Dumpling”) (1880), which brought him his first real fame, befriends the bourgeoisie who share her coach as they flee their common enemy during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, and is repaid with manipulation, callousness and cruelty.

Those themes occur again and again in Maupassant’s stories, as does the Franco-Prussian war, which shamed, horrified and fascinated him. But he has a gift for humor and absurdity too and a deep insight into both male and female psychology. Canine psychology too: the disturbing “Une vendetta” is about the way a bereaved mother conditions her dead son’s dog to kill his murderer. But canine psychology is in part human psychology, because dogs and men have lived together so long and have a common ancestor. Maupassant is pre-scientific and even pre-Darwinian in his world-view, but his intuition and intelligence revealed these unities and he was a greater psychologist than many who have claimed the title for real.

The simplicity of his prose means that he survives translation well too, but should also be an incentive for you to attempt him in the original French. And if you want more, try Maugham: an Anglophone disciple of Maupassant who may sometimes have matched him in composition and clarity, if not in originality, and whose own prose seems universal, perhaps because English wasn’t really his mother tongue. Maugham is post-Christian like Maupassant but doesn’t write about the supernatural as often, perhaps because, unlike Maupassant, he didn’t start to go mad from syphilis and end his life in a lunatic asylum.

The supernatural stories Maupassant wrote as his madness developed and deepened are among the most disturbing and powerful I’ve ever read, but some of the loneliest too. Madness began to wall him off from the world whose richness and complexity he had portrayed so well, and the stories he wrote under its influence are about individuals struggling against mysterious unhuman forces rather than individuals in interaction. From general psychology his interest shifted to particular psychoses. That’s because he was himself becoming psychotic. Which was his loss and literature’s gain: his final stories add to the already great range and power of his œuvre. Nineteenth-century French literature contains some very great names but Maupassant’s is secure among them.

Buzz Off

The Wasp Factory, Iain Banks (1984)

If you want a book to sell or a film to be seen, don’t worry about moralizing and condemnatory reviews. In fact, be pleased about them. In fact, encourage them. If someone hears that a book 1) is sick; 2) is corrupting; 3) is misogynistic; 4) shouldn’t be read, they will naturally want to read it.

And if they discover that the book indeed shouldn’t be read, but not because it was sick, corrupting, or misogynistic, rather because it was badly written and boring, what can they do about it? It’s too late: they’ve already bought the book and helped an author to set off on a lengthy career producing more badly written and boring books.

But of course I’m not talking just in general, I’m talking in particular too. I’m not just talking about “a book”, I’m talking about The Wasp Factory. And I’m not just talking about “an author”, I’m talking about Iain Banks (with and without the middle “M”). When it was first published, The Wasp Factory was reviewed as though it were something by the Marquis de Sade. And yes, in one way it did read like something by the Marquis de Sade too. After all, if the Marquis de Sade had tried to write in English, he wouldn’t have been very good at it. Nor is Iain Banks. In fact, he’s not good at anything: plots, characterization, dialog, or humor. Above all, he’s not good at being sick, corrupting, or misogynistic. What he – or rather his publisher – was good at was publicity.

And the plot of The Wasp Factory? Very simple: boy meets girl and other boys; boy kills girl and other boys; boy discovers boy isn’t really boy after all. Or something like that. All set on a Scottish island with rituals performed in front of the title’s “Wasp Factory,” which makes me think Banks did Lord of the Flies for A-Level, or even O-Level. Changing “flies” to “wasps” was characteristically inventive of him.

Drink Ink

The Way to Dusty Death, Alistair MacLean (1973)

I can remember trying one of Agatha Christie’s novels and being exhilarated by the simplicity and straightforwardness of her prose. The novel was a rush to read, like skating effortlessly over endless ice. The exhilaration wore off before the end and I became bored instead, but it was an interesting experience.

And I was reminded of it when I read The Way to Dusty Death again after a collection of stories by Sheridan Le Fanu. MacLean is to Le Fanu rather as a desert is to a jungle. One is flat, dry, and arid, the other teems with life and mystery. MacLean’s prose has no depth, nuance or subtlety: it’s as functional and undecorated as a military map. But I still enjoyed The Way to Dusty Death a lot and want to read it again sometime. And maybe my readings are even in double figures by now. MacLean has the ability to write compellingly that a lot of other Scottish writers have and perhaps if English rather than Gaelic had been his mother tongue he might have written more like Robert Louis Stevenson: not just compellingly, but with depth too.

All the same, part of this novel’s appeal is its simplicity. It’s escapist, requiring no special effort, and it pushes the right buttons on the male psyche. Johnny Harlow, the world’s #1 racing driver, is up against a devious and dangerous race-rigging gang, and proves more devious and dangerous than the gang is. There are lots of technical titbits and descriptions of fast driving and hard fighting en route to Harlow’s final and complete triumph. But there’s indirect psychological flattery for the reader with the exciting action. Harlow, like most people in the world, isn’t estimated at his true worth. Or rather, he is until he goes undercover, pretending to become an alcoholic in order to throw both his enemies and his friends off their guard:

MacAlpine, grim-faced and almost incredulous, bent over Harlow, sniffed in disgust and removed the bottle from Harlow’s nerveless hand. He looked at Dunnett, who returned his expressionless glance.

MacAlpine said: “The greatest driver in the world.”

“Please, James. You said it yourself. It happens to all of them. Remember? Sooner or later, it happens to them all.”

“But Johnny Harlow?”

“Even to Johnny Harlow.”

MacAlpine nodded.

Both men turned and left the room, closing the door behind them.

Harlow opened his eyes, rubbed his chin thoughtfully. His hand stopped moving and he sniffed his palm. He wrinkled his nose in disgust. (end of ch. 2)

Disgust is not that something MacLean himself would have shown: Harlow is a wish-fulfilment fantasy for the author as well as the author’s readers. People look on Harlow with disgust, contempt, and pity because of his drinking, but all the time he’s putting on an act and is in perfect control. And later in the book MacLean’s old obsessions with rain, cold, and fatigue return, during Harlow’s adventures in Marseilles. Once again he’s indirectly writing about his service on the Arctic convoys that carried supplies to Russia during the Second World War. Men got little chance for proper rest on the convoys, so MacLean was familiar with the sensation of being asleep on your feet, when dream and reality became intermingled. And in The Way to Dusty Death there’s a dream-like quality to the way the French police, like all other Europeans in the book, speak complex, colloquial English. Or perhaps Harlow is an expert linguist as well as expert driver and they’re really talking in French when Harlow drags his badly injured would-be assassin off to the police station. MacLean doesn’t bother to explain.

Harlow gets bashed in Marseilles too, though it isn’t his fault. Rory, his love-interest’s younger brother, mistakenly switches from hero-worship to hate after Harlow apparently cripples his sister in a driving accident. That’s why Rory starts spying on Harlow for the gang, who have tricked him into thinking they’re the good guys. So MacLean’s old obsession with paranoia and suspicion is present too. Superman Harlow re-converts Rory to hero-worship and deals out dusty death to the gang, as they, in two ways, have been dealing it out to others. The double meaning and Shakespearian provenance of the title are the closest the novel gets to Literature-with-a-capital-L, but I find MacLean more interesting than many writers-with-a-capital-W. He’s careless, he’s clumsy, but he compels.

Readers’ Advisory: Key counter-cultural quotations contain core corpse-contemplation (and worse)…

PROCEED AT YOUR OWN RISK.


Headpressean:

Met police officers plead guilty over photos [wow] taken at scene of sisters’ deaths

A police officer made degrading and sexist insults about two murdered women as he shared pictures from the scene where they were found with a colleague photographing their bodies [wow] and also sharing the images via WhatsApp.

The two Metropolitan police officers pleaded guilty on Tuesday after sharing photographs from the crime scene they were supposed to be guarding in a London park, where two sisters, Nicole Smallman, 27, and Bibaa Henry, 46, were found stabbed to death.

PC Deniz Jaffer, 48, and PC Jamie Lewis, 33, admitted misconduct in public office at the Old Bailey, with the judge, Mark Lucraft QC, warning that they were “extremely likely” to be jailed.

Jaffer left the post he had been assigned to in June 2020 at Fryent Country Park in Wembley, north-west London, and went into bushes where the women had been left by their satanist-obsessed killer. The officer took out a mobile phone and took pictures of the bodies [wow].

He sent four images to Lewis [wow], who edited one of the photos and superimposed his face on to it with the two murdered women visible [wow] in the background. – Cops Contemplate Corpses, 3xi21

Headpressean:

Plumber, 57, put cameras [wow] in female customers’ toilets ‘to meet his sexual needs’

A plumber who secretly installed spy cameras [wow] in his customers’ toilets “to meet his sexual needs” has been jailed for 12 months. James Hulme, 57, was caught when a female client spotted a hidden camera [wow] on her sink in her downstairs toilet and reported him to police.

Detectives discovered that Hulme, from Glendon Drive, Sherwood, Nottinghamshire, had put secret devices in up to six other women’s bathrooms. After a search of his home, officers found 302 indecent images of children and pornography involving animals.

Hulme pleaded guilty to voyeurism [wow], making indecent images of a child and possessing extreme pornographic images. He was jailed for 12 months at Nottingham Crown Court last Wednesday. The court heard he was caught while carrying out work at a woman’s home in Clifton, Nottinghamshire, in June 2018. She confronted Hulme when she found a spy camera attached to a sink in the downstairs toilet.

Hulme admitted being responsible and fled the property with the recording device when the woman called police. Hulme was arrested a short time later, and Nottinghamshire Police said he admitted recording the customer, as well as five or six others, “to meet his sexual needs”. – Cameras for Culture, 2xi21

Very Headpressean:

David [wow] Fuller: man admits two murders and sexual abuse of multiple corpses [wow]

Trial of former hospital electrician is believed to be worst case of necrophilia in British legal history

An electrician who admitted murdering two women in 1987 also sexually attacked scores of corpses [wow] in a hospital mortuary in the worst offending of its kind in British legal history, prosecutors say.

His trial heard that he also sexually assaulted women’s corpses [wow] in the mortuaries at Kent and Sussex hospital and Tunbridge Wells hospital while working there. When Fuller’s home was raided police discovered 4m images of sexual abuse. Most were downloaded from the internet, but Fuller had also recorded himself abusing bodies [wow].

The CPS said Fuller’s necrophilia was unprecedented in British legal history: “Searches of Fuller’s home following his arrest uncovered hard drives concealed [wow] in a hide in his home, revealing evidence of prolific sexual offending of a kind no British court has seen before. Between 2008 and 2020, Fuller had filmed and photographed himself sexually abusing the bodies of dozens of women and girls [wow] at two Tunbridge Wells hospital mortuaries he was able to access through his job as the maintenance supervisor.”

Fuller was arrested for murder on 3 December last year after new analysis of decades-old DNA evidence, and officers searched his home. There they found images of dead women at the two hospital mortuaries being abused by Fuller [wow], the prosecutor, Duncan Atkinson QC, said on Monday.

Officers then found four hard drives with 5TB of data storage in total attached to the back of a cupboard. “When these hard drives were examined, they were found to contain a library of unimaginable sexual depravity [wow],” Atkinson said.

Libby Clark, of the CPS, said: “This highly dangerous man has inflicted unimaginable suffering on countless families and he has only admitted his long-held secrets when confronted with overwhelming evidence. I have no doubt he would still be offending to this day had it not been for this painstaking investigation and prosecution.”

Sajid Javid, the health secretary, said the NHS had written to all health trusts asking for mortuary access and postmortem activities to be reviewed [wow]. An independent review has started at the trust where Fuller worked and the Human Tissue Authority has been asked for advice on whether rules need to be changed. – Devious Dave copulates with corpses, 4xi21


Elsewhere other-engageable…

Killing for Culturethe seminal survey of the sizzle of snuff…

Serial Slay (UK) – Britain’s biggest and best serial-slayer surveillance site. Updated daily.

Littlerature

In Miniature: How Small Things Illuminate the World, Simon Garfield (Canongate 2018)

Opening a book is like crossing a border; reading a book is like touring a country. So maybe we should have to make customs-declarations before we begin a book and after we finish it. The before-questions would include: “Purpose of visit?” and “Expected length of visit?” And, for comparison later, “Expectations of visit?”

If I’d filled in a customs-declaration like that before reading In Miniature, I would have said that the purpose of my visit was “Sight-seeing” and that my expectations were “moderate”. Maybe I wouldn’t stay for the whole tour. I was attracted by the quirky subject of the book, obvs, but I wasn’t expecting great things of its treatment. You don’t often expect great things when you open a book; and when you do, you’re sometimes disappointed. I wasn’t expecting bad things of the book either, but they seemed somewhat likelier. The subject of miniature things – tiny reproductions of real objects, and especially big real objects – is ripe for pretension, cultural theory, and copious reference to Barthes, Freud and Heidegger. Think what a windbag like Will Self could make of it, for example. The head reels.

Simon Garfield turned out to be not at all like Will Self. There was no pretension, no cultural theory, and no bad prose. Quite the reverse. In Miniature was one of the most enjoyable books I’ve ever read. A sure sign of that was this: I began to ration my reading, not wanting to finish the book too soon. It was good to think that I’d have more to read tomorrow. Garfield looks at obvious things like match-stick models, military modelling, dolls’ houses and model trains, but there are unusual and even unsettling mini-thingies in the book too, like micro-sculpture, micro-food, LSD-sticker art, and the murder-scenes-in-miniature “Nutshell Studies” of Frances Glessner Lee.

Oh, and there was one brief-but-brilliant burst of pretension, as the transgressive artist Jake Chapman described his transgressive sculpture Hell (2000) in echt Guardianese: “If this work is about hell, it’s not only about hell in terms of content. It’s also about hell in terms of its hellishness in terms of production.” But Chapman’s terminal transgressivity stood out for its rarity. Simon Garfield might be a Guardianista himself, but he doesn’t write in Guardianese. And although I’d forgotten he was the author, I now realize that he wrote another book I’ve enjoyed a lot in the past few years: Just My Type, about type-faces and fonts. He seems attracted to topics on multum in parvo – “much in little”.

And that’s what you’ll get if you read In Miniature. I arrived expecting little and departed having received a lot. And if I’d filled in a customs-declaration on departure, I would have put “Yes!” under “Do you intend to re-visit?” and “Definitely” under “Will you be visiting any of In Miniature’s neighbours?” Garfield has written books on everything from William Huskisson, the first victim of a rail-accident, to the color mauve. I like the way his mind works and, as In Miniature and Just my Type have proved, I like the way he expresses what’s on his mind.

The Man in the Red Coat, Julian Barnes (Penguin 2019)

When I posted Cornelia Otis Skinner’s witty and well-written “Portrait of a Peacock” at my other blog, I would have been pleased to know that within a few weeks I’d be reading a book in which the Peacock has a leading role. Alas, the anticipation would have proved better than the reality. Comte Robert de Montesquiou, the aristocratic French dandy, aesthete and literary butterfly, flits and flutters everywhere in Julian Barnes’ The Man in the Red Coat. But the book has two big flaws by comparison with Skinner’s essay. And one big flaw of its own.

The two big comparative flaws are that the book isn’t very well-written and isn’t mostly about Montesquiou, but a less interesting figure: the French-Italian surgeon and gynaecologist Samuel Pozzi, who’s the Man in the Red Coat of the title. The big flaw of its own is that it doesn’t have an index. Despite Barnes’ sometimes clumsy and banal prose, the book has many amusing and interesting anecdotes and asides. But if you want to re-read them after finishing the book, you’ll have to find them for yourself. Here’s one about the Peacock, who was on holiday in the Pyrenees when he received a telegram informing him that his favourite house, the luxurious and art-replete Pavilion “at Neuilly, on the edge of the Bois de Boulagne”, had been burgled:

As he travelled north, the Count’s apprehension deepened. He imagined his Whistler slashed to pieces. He remembered Flaubert’s phrase from Salammbô about the mercenaries destroying objects “whose meaning escapes them, and which, because of this, exasperate them.” When he got to Neuilly he found, to his relief and amazement, that his treasures were all intact and the “mercenaries” seemed to have left without any loot. Shortly afterwards, the burglars were arrested. At their trial, one of them was asked why they hadn’t stolen anything. He replied, “Oh, there wasn’t anything for us there.” Montesquiou described these words as “the most flattering of all that have been addressed to me in my entire existence.” – pg. 193-4

Montesquiou posing as the head of John the Baptist, flanked by lines of his own poetry

When the Peacock is on stage, this book is always interesting and entertaining. When he isn’t, it’s often much less so. And although it’s almost entirely about la Belle Époque and Francophones, it doesn’t have much French in it. Barnes is bilingual, so why didn’t he write more about Parisian slang and quote more of his dramatis personae in the original? Perhaps he was concealing the drabness of his translations. But he does describe and analyse art well. He notes, for example, that a turquoise cuff-link echoes the turquoise handle of the cane Montesquiou is wielding in Boldini’s famous portrait. That small but significant detail isn’t obvious in copies of the portrait I’ve seen on the net, so here’s a scan from the book:

Robert de Montesquiou by Boldini (1897) (open in new window for larger version)

And there are many more images where that came from. Many obviously come from Barnes’ own collection, including the free photo-cards of Célébrités Contemporaines included with bars of chocolate manufactured by “the grocers Félix Potin.” Maupassant, Wagner, Marie Curie and Kipling are there, which didn’t surprise me. But so is Montesquiou, which did surprise me. I thought he was a minor figure even at the time. He wasn’t. Indeed, he appeared on two cards in the Célébrités Contemporaines series. Barnes says this:

There is something eternally satisfying about the dandyish count – so superior, so exclusive, so aloof from the middle and lower classes, so removed from the normal materiality of the world – falling out of a chocolate wrapper as a free gift. And the anonymous drudge employed by Félix Potin to supply brief biographical notes sardonically observes that the Count is “the author of numerous verse pieces whose precocity is only increased by the wilful oddity of the titles he chooses to supply them with.” – pg. 92

Montesquiou as “Homme de Lettres” on a chocolate manufacturer’s photo-card

Yes, but I think the Count would have been pleased by the illustriousness of the company he was keeping. Just as I was pleased to see him appear in a book by a famous British writer nearly a century after his death. But I would have been more pleased if this had been a better-written book and had centered on Montesquiou rather than Pozzi. Alas, even if Barnes had written The Man with the Turquoise Cane instead, it wouldn’t have been as good as Cornelia Otis Skinner’s “Portrait of a Peacock”. Le Comte est mort! Vive le Comte!

Montesquiou and his secretary-lover Gabriel Yturri in Oriental costume

Bon and Off

Two Sides to Every Glory: AC/DC: The Complete Biography, Paul Stenning (Chrome Dreams 2005)

Like AC/DC’s music, this bigraphy is down-to-earth and easy to appreciate. Unlike AC/DC’s music, it doesn’t take a turn for the worse part-way through. That’s because the author stays the same. In AC/DC, one of the authors changed: the lead singer and lyricist Bon Scott died and Brian Johnson replaced him.

That’s when AC/DC took a turn for the worse. Much worse. In the past year, I began listening to AC/DC properly again – that is, listening to full albums. Indeed, full albums one-after-another. But only the ones with Bon on. He was the soul of AC/DC, mixing macho with melancholy. And if the macho was tongue-in-cheek, the melancholy was real. That’s why I no longer regret his early death: as I explained in a review of Highway to Hell: The Life and Times of AC/DC Legend Bon Scott (2006), I think he’d had enough and wanted to go.

AC/DC were on the verge of really big success when he died, but that was probably another reason for him to drink so recklessly. Two Sides to Every Glory devotes a full chapter to the night-and-aftermath of his passing, but doesn’t really deliver what the back cover promises: “revelations never previously published.” Yes, the full truth will probably never be known, but nothing sinister seems to have gone on and the main story won’t change. One night Bon Scott drank too much, pushed his body too far, and died in his sleep.

AC/DC effectively died with him: with Bon, the light was on. Without him, it was off. Angus and Malcolm Young carried on writing catchy music, but Brian Johnson turned the band into what it had always claimed not to be: heavy metal. Crude and witless heavy metal. There’s no melancholy in songs like “Shake the Foundations” and “What Do You Do for Money, Honey?” There’s a lot of macho, though, and it isn’t tongue-in-cheek. I wondered whether I’d be able to carry on reading into the Brian-Johnson era. I was. The book was still easy and enjoyable to read, and it was still finding good quotes from Angus. Early on, he described AC/DC like this: “Five dwarves that make a big racket.” He also said: “Bon’s always been of no fixed abode and I’m in the flat above.”

That’s a clever line. So, in a different way, is this from well into the Brian-Johnson era: “I am sick to death of people saying that we’ve made 11 albums that sound exactly the same. In fact we’ve made 12 albums that sound exactly the same.” Here’s another one: “I’m not going bald: my head’s just getting higher.” But, alas, none of that clever humor was being matched in AC/DC’s lyrics by then. Bon could both write and deliver subtle lyrics, creating complete stories in single songs. Johnson stamped out the subtlety and the stories. But if he wrecked AC/DC as a band, he didn’t stop their story being interesting, so I read on to the end. For one thing, the AC/DC story is also, in part, the story of popular music and their reaction to what is taking place around them. Or rather, their lack of reaction. This isn’t a clever or amusing quote from the band-breaker himself, but it does explain the appeal of AC/DC: “Our music doesn’t go out of fashion because it isn’t about fashion. I hear about all these different kinds of music: grunge, hardcore, death metal. And all it is is rock’n’roll.”

AC/DC have always captured the energy and excitement of rock’n’roll. Early on, with Bon, they combined those things with cleverness and charisma. Later, with Brian, they said balls to all that. And with Bon, energy, excitement and macho posturing weren’t the be-and-end-all of their music. “Ride On” isn’t a raucous rocker. It’s about a drifter who’s booked himself a permanent stay at the Heartbreak Hotel. Scott’s delivery is understated but evocative: he sings the drifter into life. By doing that, he foreshadowed his own death. And with it, the death of AC/DC. But they picked up most of their fans post mortem and most of this book is about the Brian-Johnson era.

How could it not be? They’ve been going for nearly fifty years and Scott was with them only for the first ten. This book was first published in 2005, but I won’t be hunting down any updated editions. This is all the detail I want. And some I didn’t want but found interesting anyway, like the detailed appendixes on everything from AC/DC promo material – “SPRAY CAN AND PLASTIC FLY … made to promote the Fly on the Wall album” – to “AC/DC songs recorded or performed by other artists,” from Metallica and Henry Rollins to Tiny Tim and Céline Dion by way of “obscure industrialists” Birmingham6. Plus, there’s an index and a comprehensive discography of both official albums and bootlegs. This is a good book about what was once a very good band.

The Jewel in the Skull, Michael Moorcock (1969)

Most of us do stupid things when we’re adolescents. Things we look back on with regret, shame, even self-loathing. You know what I’m talking about: drinking; drug-taking; sex with close relatives and household pets; serial-killing; listening to Guns’n’Roses; saying “in terms of”.

Yes, I wince when I look back on certain adolescent mistakes of mine. But perhaps the most wince-worthy is this: I used to read Michael Moorcock. Worse still: I used to enjoy Michael Moorcock. What was I thinking? I wasn’t thinking straight, that’s for sure. But I can offer this in partial auto-exculpation: my Moorcock-philia phase didn’t last very long. I think it stopped when I got bored with one of the Elric books. I had started to feel a deadness and emptiness in the prose, so that I couldn’t see or feel anything in the story.

That’s not a problem I’ve ever had with Tolkien, whom I read enthusiastically as an adolescent and have never stopped reading enthusiastically. But it must be twenty years and more since I last tried anything by Michael Moorcock. Seeing this book cheap in a secondhand shop prompted me to break that happy exile. Could Moorcock really be as bad as I remembered? After all, I’d thought this particular book was a cut above the Elric books even when I was a Moorcock-fan. It traces the first adventure of the warrior-aristocrat Dorian Hawkmoon and describes his apparent defeat and doom when a huge black jewel is implanted in his skull by the evil warrior-wizards of Granbretan. The jewel will see everything he sees and make him obedient to the will of the wizards. If he tries to rebel, he’ll be punished in a peculiarly horrible way, as you can see from this quotation in the blurb at the front:

The Duke felt the jewel again. “What have you done to me?” he asked eventually.

“We have merely secured your loyalty,” Kalan chuckled. “Now you will carry out our plan for the triumph of Granbretan whether you want to or not. Should we so desire, we can give life to the jewel and then…”

Hawkmoon reached out stiffly and touched the Baron’s arm. “What will it do?”

“Why, it will eat your brain, Duke of Köln. It will eat your brain.”

Powerful-if-potboily stuff, I thought when I read the blurb and prepared to try The Jewel in the Skull again. But that curiously effective “Why” is missing from the scene in the book proper. Did Moorcock ever use it or was it added by a more literarily skilled blurbster? Maybe the latter, because by venturing into the book proper I learned that Moorcock was indeed as bad as I remembered him. Once I’d started this book, that old feeling quickly came back: the prose was dead and empty. There was no life in anything, no fuel for the imagination to feed on and conjure faces, people, sights, fights, colours, sounds, smells, sensations and adventure. Reading The Jewel in the Skull felt like trudging ever deeper into an ever drier and dustier desert.

In short, The Jewel in the Skull puts no fuel in the skull. Not in mine anyway. So I quickly gave up, though I will concede that Moorcock writes better prose than Tolkien usually does. But that’s not difficult to do, because Tolkien is not technically a good writer. Spiritually speaking, however, he’s far above Moorcock. I’ll also concede that Moorcock doesn’t give me the creeps the way James Joyce does. I’ve felt as though I’m sinking in a mire each time I’ve tried Joyce, so I won’t be trying him again. And I have tried him more than once. And there’s something slimy in William Burroughs, so I won’t be trying him again either.

I don’t sense that Joycean creepiness or Burroughsian slime in Moorcock, but this will probably be my last attempt to read him too. I’ve tried and disliked some of his more serious literary stuff, so I don’t think I’m judging him unfairly on his fantasy potboilers. His prose is dead and empty in every genre he tries, as far as I can see. Tolkien’s prose isn’t and nor is Robert E. Howard’s. Moorcock was trying to bring more complexity and sophistication into sword’n’sorcery than Howard had used, but Conan has something that Dorian Hawkmoon and Elric and all the other incarnations of the Eternal Champion don’t have. He has it in abundance too. It’s called life. Unlike Moorcock, Howard and Tolkien do put fuel in the skull.